Pages in a braille book

Braille in the digital age

Image credit: Getty Images

Physical braille keyboards enable blind people to type, but they are not always handy or convenient. Does digital braille provide users with a coveted always-on alternative?

In a predominantly sighted world like ours, reading a book or writing a letter might seem plausible for only the fully-sighted. Fortunately, braille brings to the unsighted just that: the joy of reading and writing. From alphabets to musical notations, the braille code has everything that print has to offer, opening a world of possibilities for the visually impaired.

Traditionally written on brocaded paper, the system contains as many as 63 characters represented in a raised dot pattern. The tactile dots, specifically designed to fit under a fingertip, make for convenient reading by touch. In fact, once adept at using the code, braille users can read anywhere between 125 to 200 words per minute – the reading speed keeps getting better and better with time.

What’s more, thanks to the advances in technology, braille is not limited to embossed paper. Paperless braille or refreshable braille display makes it possible for braille users to read text from a digital screen. By its very essence, a refreshable braille display is a smart device that produces braille when connected to a PC, tablet or smartphone.

The display, typically connected via USB cable or Bluetooth, mimics the familiar raised dots pattern in the form of tiny pins that can be lifted or pressed down. This allows individuals to read the braille equivalent of text on the screen, quite simply by running their fingers over the refreshable braille cells from left to right.

However, there is a catch to this silver lining: as revolutionary as they seem, refreshable braille displays still make blind people dependent. For instance, imagine having to look for a USB cable for connecting to a smartphone while in distress. With heavy reliance on cables and optimum Bluetooth connectivity, refreshable braille displays are far from meeting the needs of individuals with vision problems. Furthermore, physical braille keyboard, an input device that facilitates entering of text in braille, makes it extra difficult for users to move around freely.

With an innovatively snappy virtual keyboard, however, Google has presented a way to type in braille without any external hardware, which the company says is a game-changer when it comes to offering an elevated smartphone typing experience for blind people. The built-in keyboard, called TalkBack, comes as a part of the Android Operating System and is available for Android devices running version 6.0 or later.

“It’s a fast, convenient way to type on your phone without any additional hardware, whether you’re posting on social media, responding to a text, or writing a brief email,” says Brian Kemler, Google’s Android Accessibility product manager. “As part of our mission to make the world’s information universally accessible, we hope this keyboard can broadly expand braille literacy and exposure among blind and low-vision people.”

Kemler further adds: “Our team collaborated with braille developers and users throughout the development of this feature, so it’ll be familiar to anyone who has typed using braille before. It uses a standard 6-key layout and each key represents one of 6 braille dots which, when tapped, make any letter or symbol. To type an “A” you would press dot 1 and to type a “B” dots 1 and 2 together. “The keyboard can be used anywhere you would normally type and allows you to delete letters and words, add lines, and submit text. You can turn the keyboard on and off as simply as switching between international keyboards.”

That’s not all; Google says it offers support for two grades of braille. Grade 1 braille consists of mainstream alphabets, numbers and punctuation symbols. Grade 2 braille, on the other hand, contains contractions in addition to letters, numbers and punctuation. Contractions are shortcuts that act as a substitute for common words. For example, ‘have’ is usually just one character in Grade 2 braille. Uncontracted braille is particularly useful when a user is fairly new to the braille system of reading and writing. Contracted, or Grade 2, braille is recommended for advanced users who are familiar with the use of abbreviations in braille.

Once set up, the keyboard runs across all Android apps and can be activated using a swift three-finger swipe gesture, according to Google. More gestures are made available for adding space, submitting a text, switching between keyboards etc. However, pre-installed TalkBack gestures that add spoken, audible and vibration feedback to the device remain deactivated when TalkBack braille keyboard is in use.

As it turns out, Google isn’t the only company with a focus on improving assistive technology for braille users. Apple, in 2014, introduced a similar on-screen braille keyboard for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices running iOS 8 or later. In par with Google’s TalkBack braille keyboard, Apple says the iBrailler Notes app enables users to easily navigate across text and perform tasks such as typing, editing and sharing, all without the hassle of connecting additional hardware devices to the phone.

Sohan Dharmaraja, one of the founding members of the app, states: “We constantly pushed ourselves to innovate because being born with a disability shouldn’t mean you get left out of today’s technology revolution. When you see the smile of someone doing something that you and I take for granted, it’s motivating.”

A strikingly unique feature of the app, according to Apple, is that the keys form automatically around the fingertips of a user when they’re placed on the screen – typing is intuitive and largely distraction-free on the iBrailler Notes app.

The app also comes with built-in audio feedback that is compatible with Apple’s Voiceover feature, with over 80 languages to choose from, making the app exceedingly useful to sight-impaired braille users who follow many different international braille code standards for communication.

Evidently, Alphabet Inc’s Google is a little late to the game. Yet its commitment to augment braille literacy is laudable. In 2018, the tech firm launched an AI-powered app called Lookout to help low-vision users better interact with their surroundings. The app can read text on signboards and labels, scan barcodes and identify currencies – covering just about everything a person with visual disability can come across in a day, according to the team behind the app.

“With Lookout, our goal is to use AI to provide more independence to the nearly 253 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired,” says Patrick Clary, product manager of Google Accessibility Engineering. “We designed Lookout to work in situations where people might typically have to ask for help – like learning about a new space for the first time, reading text and documents, and completing daily routines such as cooking, cleaning and shopping. By holding or wearing your device (we recommend hanging your Pixel phone from a lanyard around your neck or placing it in a shirt front pocket), Lookout tells you about people, text, objects and much more as you move through space.”

Casting light on the accessibility of the app, Clary explains: “The core experience is processed on the device, which means the app can be used without an internet connection. Lookout delivers spoken notifications, designed to be used with minimal interaction allowing people to stay engaged with their activity.”

Voice Access is another app by Google that aims at enabling simplified searches and then some. Although originally designed for users with limited mobility, Google says the app works “incredibly well” for the blind, or just about anyone with who needs to multitask. Voice match is used to ensure that only the intended user is able to activate the feature.

To conduct a true test of the app’s efficiency, Google’s Accessibility team worked with several participants with special needs, including Stefanie Putnam. One of the few quadriplegic para-equestrian drivers in the world, Putnam’s feedback – and that of other test subjects – helped the team model and tune early prototypes of the product.

“After using this product for probably about 10 seconds, I think I’m falling in love with it,” she said upon review. “You use your voice and you’re able to access the world. It has become a huge staple in my life.”

The spoken instructions can range from simple ‘click next’ and ‘scroll down’ to a more complex text editing command such as ‘replace coffee with tea’ – voice commands can offer an enriched typing experience to the blind.

The said apps might just change the way people with little or no sight perceive the world, but the fundamental importance of braille remains unchanged. A gateway to literacy, braille, which is over a hundred years old, continues to play a pivotal role in the lives of the unsighted; 90 per cent of the estimated 85,000 blind adults in the US today are braille-literate. As a direct interpretation of print, braille provides access to written word, music, mathematics and just about any other field of study that there is.

Further to this, assistive technology has helped bring braille on to digital screens. The shift has enabled quick and easy access to eBooks, files and notes for blind people. Yet the best perks of learning how to touch type on digital devices include an increased sense of independence, self-reliance and reduced social isolation. Career advancement, higher income and job security are other good innings that follow as the visually impaired join the workforce.


The origin of braille

It was the year 1815. French soldiers made use of lamps to secretly read combat instructions in the dark. The light source inadvertently led to their capture as enemy assailants could easily decipher the true location of French troops by the light radiating from the lamps.

In response to this, military veteran Charles Barbier devised a secret code so army men could communicate safely at night. Based on a system of raised dots, the unique ‘night writing’ code enabled soldiers to read combat commands by touch. However, although life-saving, the code was very complex.

A few years later, 15-year-old Louis Braille learned of this secret military code. Having lost his eyesight at a young age, Braille saw the complex code of raised dots as an opportunity to develop a simpler reading and writing system for blind people. Determined, he spent the next nine years refining the code so as to represent the French alphabet and numbers.

By 1829, Braille published a book written in embossed letters to demonstrate the code. However, his system was rejected time and again. It wouldn’t be until 1854, two years after Louis Braille died, that braille became an accepted standard of written communication for the blind. The code is named after him as a tribute to his relentless efforts. In fact, in 1999, the space community honoured Braille by naming an asteroid ‘9969 Braille’.



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